Trevor Linden and Jim Benning faced the media on Monday after firing Willie Desjardins. It was a strange mix of spin and taking responsibility, simultaneously recognizing the role they played in the Canucks’ horrendous season, while attempting to convince everyone else that it really hasn’t been so bad and that everything is going according to plan.
Most of all, they avoided the word “rebuild.” When the word came up, Trevor dismissed the idea, saying, “Call it what you want.” Later on TSN 1040 when Don Taylor specifically asked, “Would it kill you to say rebuild?” Trevor still managed to talk around the word without saying it:
“Honestly, I think there’s been so much made out of that, I think it’s pretty clear to see where we are. I think our actions have supported our message, by getting younger, introducing young players into our lineup and building a prospect pool.”
It’s getting comical at this point. They can’t even say the word “rebuild” in a negative sense, like, “What we’re doing isn’t exactly a rebuild” or “We’re committed to transitioning to a new, younger core, but I wouldn’t call that a rebuild.”
There were a couple head-scratching moments, like when Benning said, “Troy Stecher this year earned a spot at training camp and we made a spot for him.” In case you’ve forgotten, you sent him down to Utica out of training camp so you could keep Philip Larsen and Alex Biega in Vancouver.
There was one answer that really got to me, however.
At around 8:30 into the press conference, Ed Willes asked about the apparent transition at the trade deadline this season from winning now to developing young players. He asked the reasonable question: can the Canucks serve two masters, both winning and development? Or would they continue to try to have it both ways?
Here is Trevor’s response:
“I think, Ed, our actions have supported a longer term view. Certainly we’ve tried to address our lineup, last year at free agency, for example. But we’ve always had our eye on the future and I think that we understood where we were and where we need to get to. We’re three years in.”
It’s that last sentence: we’re three years in. Because I have to ask, three years into what?
Obviously they’re three years into their tenure as General Manager and President of the Canucks, but suggesting they’re three years into a coherent and consistent plan for the future just doesn’t hold water.
They’re certainly not three years into a rebuild, though that’s what Linden tries really hard to imply without actually saying the word. The Canucks have done exactly what Willes suggested with his question: they’ve tried to serve two masters, attempting to both win now and build for the future.
The problem is that those two purposes have worked against each other. Their attempts to win now have been undermined by a mandate to “get younger” without a clear vision as to how or why, resulting in Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann playing in the NHL as teenagers before they’re fully ready. Inept roster management and baffling lineup choices certainly haven’t helped.
On the other hand, their attempts to build for the future have been undermined by trades and free agent signings clearly designed to win now.
Ryan Kesler was traded not for prospects and picks, but for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and Jared McCann. Two more trades later, and the Canucks have Sbisa, Brandon Sutter, and Erik Gudbranson, three mediocre roster players in return for the best trade chip at their disposal.
It’s hard to argue that the Kesler trade was made with a longer term view. That’s not a rebuilding move; that’s an attempt to shore up the current lineup to win now.
The McCann for Gudbranson trade suggests that even last off-season Trevor and Benning weren’t taking actions that “supported a longer term view.” The Canucks included a 2nd and a 4th round pick, sacrificing long term potential for an immediate boost to the Canucks’ defence corps, even if Gudbranson didn’t exactly provide that boost this past season.
Then there’s the attempts to shortcut the rebuild process: trades like Gustav Forsling for Adam Clendening, Hunter Shinkaruk for Markus Granlund, and second round picks for Linden Vey and Sven Baertschi.
Those are trades that attempt to have it both ways, jumping over a couple years of development to bring the future into the present and improve the current team simultaneously. Granlund and Baertschi are working out well for the Canucks so far, but not so much for Vey and Clendening.
Free agent signings like Ryan Miller, Radim Vrbata, and Loui Eriksson have been clearly keyed towards winning now, with Eriksson’s deal potentially providing some cap headaches in a few years when the Canucks' new young core requires new contracts.
Picking some good young prospects in the draft is not rebuilding or working towards the long term; it’s just what every team does. Gradually incorporating young players into the lineup likewise isn’t any different than what non-rebuilding teams do.
The only thing the Canucks have done that vaguely resembles a rebuild is trading Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows at the trade deadline for two promising young prospects. For the first time in three years, Trevor and Benning clearly and unmistakably sacrificed winning now for developing for the future.
So again, I have to ask, three years into what? Trevor and Benning’s actions through three years have not demonstrated a clear long-term vision, but have muddled through trying to have the best of both worlds. But at some point, you have to stop trying to be both Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus and pick one.
What’s it going to be? You can’t pretend that you’re three years into some clearly laid out plan, because nobody is buying it. Is the trade deadline this season a sign that you’re truly embracing a rebuild or is your inability to say “rebuild” a sign that “win now” will continue to battle with the future of the franchise?